NJ Governor Christie might (might) be on to something …

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_christie_education

Since I haven’t mentioned this in a while, I preface this by saying that while I am a public high school teacher, I am non-union in a state that force all teachers to pay “fair-share” dues.

The mess that is education in Wisconsin might see an interesting contrast from another Republican governor who has some more sane ideas.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has some ideas about education reform that while a bit pie in the sky are infinitely more workable and could actually see some payoffs.  To quote the union, it is being called “a disaster”.  I am not convinced it is that bad.

Christie spoke broadly about the need to reform public education, saying seniority-based tenure should be abolished and that good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers.

This sentence alone begs to question, shouldn’t bad teachers notget paid at all?  Seriously … if they are bad, shouldn’t they go?  This begs an even deeper question:  How do you decide a “good” teacher” from a “bad” teacher?  I contend that this is like judging a good artist from a bad one … it is enormously subjective.  One might argue that “you know it when you see it”, but try working that into a contract.

As far as seniority based tenure … I’m not wholly against that … my school district has a system that accounts for a number of factors when determining one’s rank in terms of when they are gotten rid of or not.  Number of years teaching is one factor, but not the only one.

He laid out new details of his plan for teacher evaluations, basing them equally on student achievement and teacher performance in the classroom. Every school district should design and implement its evaluation plan based on that framework, Christie said, with teachers and principals taking charge of drafting the plan and measuring one another’s performance.

On paper, this doesn’t sound so bad.  I wholly disagree that this constitutes a disaster, but on the other hand, I’m not sure that this will even come close to accomplishing what the Governor wants.

Why should pay be based on teacher achievement in the classroom AND student achievement.  If a teacher is universally regarded as doing a wonderful job in the classroom, but their students don’t test well … how is that the teacher’s fault?  If the teacher is not doing a good job in the classroom, then we can start discussing pay cuts … but I fail to understand why teachers should receive a py cut because they happen to teach students who refuse to do homework because they have to work after school to support their family … or that they can’t focus in the classroom because they go home and live in fear of gangs or an abusive parent … or are dealing with drug/alcohol problems.

Having teachers and principals responsible for evaluating each other?  I can’tthink of a district where teachers are not evaluated by a direct supervisor (I’m pretty sure if our principal were responsible for evaluating all 300+ members of our staff, a lot of other work wouldn’t get done).  All this would change is that teachers would now evaluate their administrators.  On paper it is a great idea.  In reality, all this would have the effect of doing is forcing administrators to give more favorable than deserved reviews in an attempt to reach quid pro quo.

I didn’t fully understand the plan, but if he wishes to include teacher-teacher peer evaluation, then he should be prepared to signing the death warrant, potentially, on any non-union teacher … especially given this colorful anti-union rhetoric.  If unions feel threatened, I really think they will retaliate.  His plan may end up having an unintended deliterious effect on the very people he may be wanting to protect.

He acknowledged the limitations of test scores on evaluations and said teachers had to be measured somewhat differently based on their subject areas.

“How do you test a music teacher? How do you test the art teacher? And don’t you test the special ed teacher a little differently?” he said.

This was shocking for me to hear … finally a politician who realizes that there is more to assessment than what the ETS tells them.  This is a promising development in terms moving away from some convoluted test to decide  how good a teacher’s work truly is.

A teacher rated effective or highly effective for three consecutive years would receive tenure, Christie said. Teachers would lose tenure after two consecutive years of ineffective ratings. Christie’s proposal also makes it quicker to get rid of underperforming teachers — cases would be resolved in 30 days.

On the one hand, I find this extremely generous to teachers in the wrong way … in Illinois, a teacher requires four years of solid evaluations before tenure is granted (not the three this governor is proposing).

The two years of poor reviews is a bit of a concern …. and I will use myself as an example.

In my 17 years of teaching, I have only had three years of poor evaluations: One was at my alma mater where I had my evaluation reduced because the blinds in my room were not in line with each other, reflecting a chaotic environment.  I also asked too many “open ended questions which could confuse students”.  My evaluator was an elderly Brother who had spent the last 20 years as a college dean in the Philippines.  He died about 3 weeks after I was evaluated.  These two events have no connection.

The other two times I had bad evaluations were in consecutive years, about 8 years ago after I had been transfered to one of our sisters schools … the new department chair and I didn’t get along, and I was dumped into an environment where there was no support from hostile colleagues, and a situation where I was getting mixed signals from the boss.  In the end, I was put on probation, which is the legal step required to revoke tenure.  I had a couple of talks with our assistant superintendent.  Before my probation was to end, I was called into the principal’s office, where I was told that my probation was over, my previous two years reviews would be stricken from the record, and that my evaluation cycle was to be restarted after I was transferred back to the school I had come from.  I think that this was an admission that someone had screwed up (I think it was my department chair who had asked grossly unprofessional during this time).  I have received nothing but the highest possible evaluation since then …

But under Governor Christie’s plan, I would have been fired.

In the end, education in this country will not be affected in meaningful ways until there is an admission that there is a far greater correlation between student success and community support.  The schools that tend to fail tend to be in areas where there is little support for education (the inner cities, rural areas).  Governments need to stop trying to use a “one size fits all” approach to fixing what is an enormously complex set of problems, not a single problem.

For all my disagreements with teachers unions … they aren’t always wrong.

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4 Responses to NJ Governor Christie might (might) be on to something …

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Is losing tenure the same thing as being fired?

    • teganx7 says:

      In practice (at least in Illinois), yes. The idea being that if you had tenure, the only reason anyone would go through the process of taking it away was for the purpose of firing you (whether this be for poor teaching, or for breaching your morality part of your contract, or for breaking a more serious law). As I understand the law, they are not exactly synonymous, though I would have to question any system that removes tenure from a teacher because they aren’t good enough/did something bad enough, but decides they are good enough to stay in a classroom.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Businesses routinely put employees “on probation,” where they are not fired, but are told that they are in danger of firing if they don’t clean up their act. Losing tenure seems like it could be the teaching equivalent of that. I don’t see why it couldn’t be a two-step process (while still getting rid of even tenured teachers immediately in the case of the most egregious violations), without taking it away automatically leading to firing.

        Generally speaking, everyone else in the world has their employment status judged almost entirely on the basis of subjective reviews, with the bosses’ reviews being given the greatest weight, but sometimes with significance attached to peer reviews as well. Teachers would at least have some amount of objective data (in the form of test scores) that they could potentially point to in disputing poor evaluations. I agree that a system that put almost all of its weight on peer reviews would be ripe for abuse, but that doesn’t seem to be what Christie is proposing, as far as I can tell.

      • teganx7 says:

        At least in Illinois, probation is a necessary legal step in stripping tenure (except when the issue is for breaching morality or other serious laws). However, schools never go through this process unless they are looking to strip tenure and remove a teacher. In some businesses, probation might be something a company does to help ease an employee out, or may be a means to remediate an employee, but a teacher who is on probation is likely one that is beyond the help of remediation.

        About 7 years ago, this is what happened to me. I was put on probation after I was transferred to another school. In the end, the school administration realized this was enough of a mistake that I was transferred back to my original school (at my request), and all of the poor evaluations were stricken from my record. Prior to that, I had never gotten a bad review, and since then, they have all been very positive.

        I don’t mind having a diverse system of evaluating a teacher. My #1 concern about peer evaluations (in my case) would be what would happen if union issues reared their head (especially if our state strips unions of their power … my working in a school could be seen as threatening, and it could lead to some problems. If testing is to be brought in to evaluations, all I ask is that very specific and concrete standards be set in writing, and that the test directly address those standards. As a matter of history, standards are often written ambiguously, and is tested rather poorly.

        The other problem I see is that a lot of the stories I am seeing is that politicians want to do away with subjective evaluations as the primary means of evaluating teachers, and that they want student test scores to replace those. So any number of professionals could honestly evaluate a teacher as doing a great job, but if the students aren’t testing well, the teacher is judged poor. I have a problem with that.

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